Friday, July 29, 2011

Post Comic Con Report and An Interview With Comic Scholar Julian Chambliss!

Digital comics and the future of the medium were very much on the minds of people within the comic book world at this year's San Diego Comic Con. There were multiple panels dedicated to the changing marketplace with  publishers, retailers, creators, and fans expressing their hopes and concerns about the coming years. The collapse of the Borders book chain - with one of the now-closed book stores less than a mile from the convention center - seemed an ominous start to the week. Sadly, I was only able to visit the con for a day and a half so the only discussion I went to was, "Are Comic Books Doomed," - a panel hosted by critic Douglas Wolk. The panel, which included Mark Waid, reps from Comics Pro and the Comic Alliance, as well as an independent publisher, was interesting but an hour isn't really enough time to go to in-depth. Most of the discussion was centered around Waid expressing concern that it is now harder for independent creators to break into the medium and the rep from the Comics Alliance arguing that concerns about the industry's future were a little overstated.  

So with little to report from the con I thought now would be the perfect time to publish a recent interview I did with a colleague of mine, Dr. Julian Chambliss. There is a brief bio at the bottom of this post, but just to provide a little background: I first met Julian when he organized a section on Comic Book History for the Florida Conference of Historians where I presented a paper at a panel he moderated. Since then Julian has joined the staff at Popmatters where he has contributed several excellent articles, and is currently editing an anthology of essays - including one by me - on comic history. As both a scholar and a giant fanboy, I thought his perspective on the future of the industry would be an invaluable addition to this blog. Enjoy and please feel free to comment!

What first got you into comics? When did you decide to dedicate a portion of your academic career to the study of this often neglected medium? 

I have been a comics fan since childhood.  I wrote my first academic paper about comic books as an undergraduate.  I didn't seriously think about doing more substantive work centered on comics until I began looking for ways to engage my students in urban history. From my perspective, superhero comics in the United States are an urban topic, so they are way to hook students.

As a comic book fan and collector what are your thoughts on the digital direction the medium appears to be heading in? Is there something about comics that is inextricably linked to paper? Do you read comics in a digital format?

I think comics are in the forefront of a digital conversion in print. As such, I believe that it almost inescapable that comics will move to digital publication in greater numbers.  The benefits are obvious, easier to distribute and greater opportunity for creators and publishers to push and develop product.  I think the natural instinct is to believe that paper has a unique place in our reading experience.  Yet, for many young readers, I think paper is a secondary experience. I think print will survive, but that print version will be a high end product and digital will be the common place format.  I don't know that we will "lose" anything, but I understand the reaction that the new way is not as good as the old. From a historical standpoint, it is a common reaction.  I read comics in print, 90% of the time, but I also read them in digital format.  I have taken advantage of Marvel's deal with Starbucks to read back issues and I look forward to reading comics on the iPad.

Do you think that the medium influences the message? For example do you think that DC's recent decision to relaunch their titles is connected to the new customers being wooed through their digital platform? Would they be doing this if they were only trying to maintain their current Wednesday readership?
There is no question in my mind that the move toward digital is about expanding the readership for superhero comics.  It is important to be specific. Superhero comics have increased their profits in recent years, but that profitability is built on event driven stories, superstar writer and/or artist, and license properties.  In many ways, the "old" model of kids loving comics is not strong enough to sustain the comic industry in an era of multimedia digital entertainment. With superhero comic readers getting older, publishers need to find ways to entice customers to try comics.  Moving to digital model put the products in front of more customers. For better or worst, the established comic customer is not driving this conversion. Superhero comics are, by definition, a destination purchase. The buyer goes out of his or her way to acquire the newest releases.  They often do this by traveling out of their way.  They go to a place that is socially and culturally marginalized.  They are doing this because they know all of this, and they don't care.  The comic book shop is a retail space catering to established customers and the person, driven by interest to seek it out.  If the average comic fan's shop closes, they will go to another shop.  It is unlikely they will stop buying comics.  They are dependable consumer of the product.  Digital is not about those readers or retailers. It is about the new customer, the marginal customer, and the curious customer.  If Captain America's Essentials were a digital download for 9.99 on July 22nd to mark the opening of Captain America in theaters, how many people would download it?  I don't know, but if every trailer mentioned that the deal was available for everyone with iPhone or iPad, I can't imagine it hurting business.  This is the fundamental truth driving digital convergence.  If you lose one diehard customer converting to digital, the odds are you will pick up one diehard digital subscriber, plus a few quarterly customers, someone interested in the back catalog, and who knows how many one time purchasers.  If you don't convert to digital, you will keep one person, but loose the opportunity at many more.  I think this is the logic that drives digital. The fact that DC announced the same price for digital and print is understandable. They don't want to alienate the established retail system. Still, the nature of the digital distribution makes the future look bleak for the 
established model.
Do you think that there a long-term roll for comic book stores now that people can download comics from home onto their digital devices? 


I do think there is a future for the comic shop. Comic shops can strive if they look upon themselves as curatorial service. There are more to comics than meets the eye, having someplace where you can go and immerse yourself in the culture is welcomed opportunity for many people. Superhero comics are the iconic face of sequential art, but far from the only example.  Comics shops defined by "geek" as outsider need to evolve to see themselves as nexus of a global pop culture.  Comics are the kaleidoscopic point in modern culture. Referential and innovative, we recognize comics as an art form, but we are still embarrassed by the superhero. If comic shops are to survive, they need to "open up" embrace all aspect represented in the form. 
The joy of comics is sometimes the joy of cataloging
What happens to collecting in a digital world?

Do you think that these changes to the medium can be good for comics? While some fans and collectors might be "left behind," do you think that this represents a necessarily step towards greater societal acceptance and decreased marginalization that will ultimately help legitimize comics and bring in more money? If not, why? If so, do you think that this is a type of betrayal of the fans who kept the medium alive during it's decades on the periphery of popular culture? 

I think this is great time for comic fans. For all the uncertainty associated with changes in the distribution system, the content found on comic pages is fantastic. No matter the genre, you can find a standout example in comics.  The emergence of transmedia means that creative minds can (and do) rely on the comic form to engage with the audience as part of a larger business model. Often seen as exploitative, comics are at the center of search for product to feed global entertainment market.  This process allows relatively small comics to become the source material for films (WANTED, RED) and television (Walking Dead),  At the same time, independent creators can and do find an audience with passion projects.  I think more people find comics everyday through the films and television with comic roots.  Indeed, people are always asking me about comics to read. They don't want to read superheroes, but I can direct them to FABLES, NORTHLANDERS, and MORNING GLORIES and they do enjoy those books.  While superheroes struggle with an identity defined by adolescence anxiety, comics as a genre are caught in a space where elite knowledge give you assess to a diverse landscape unknown to the masses.  At some level, the emergence of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC's turn toward the same effort will heighten this disconnect.   As a result, the marginalization associated with comics will persist as long a superhero garner so much media attention. Superheroes are linked to a regressive outlook. If you are reading comics at 35, you are trying to recapture your childhood. No other literature you discover in youth and return to faces the same kind of scrutiny. If you read Catcher in the Rye when you were 15 and came back to it at 35, no one would question you. If you read Green Arrow/Green Lantern in 1973 and went looking for it now because you saw the trailer for Green Lantern, people would ask you why...that is a problem of perception, not content.

For comic fans, the coming years will be difficult. I don' think we need  to worry about the death of comics, but a new model of distribution is going to take hold and this model will wipe away comic shops unable to adapt.  Is this a betrayal?  No, it is no different than the man who made buggy whips when the Model A arrived.  He was out of business because the technology made his product useless.  The comic shop as we know it is under stress, but a new shop will emerge that give people the support for products related to comics.  Indeed, I suspect limited editions print will become a new high end product in an era of digital distribution.  The ABSOLUTE JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA by Geoff Johns and Jim Lee will fetch a considerable, especially if the number of print copies is limited. This will actually heighten the value of print, sparking a new age of collectibles (perhaps).


*****

Julian C. Chambliss is associate professor of history at Rollins College in Winter Park, FL. His teaching and research focus on urban history and culture in the United States.  His recent publications have appeared in Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, Specs: A Journal of Arts & Culture, Studies in American Culture, Georgia Historical Quarterly, Journal of Urban History, and Florida Historical Quarterly. Check out his website here.

(Incompetent Editor's Note: Sorry about all the weird boxes around some of the interivew. Not quite sure how to get rid of it.)

Friday, July 22, 2011

Comic Con

Just arrived in San Diego for Comic Con! There are several panels about digital comics, and the future of the medium going on this weekend. I'll be live tweeting the various panels under the hashtag "@futureofprint" and doing a full write up of what I see next week. Any readers have any questions you want me to ask please comment on this post.


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Location:E Harbor Dr,San Diego,United States